“The Power of the Pygmalion Effect”

I worked together with my colleagues Megan Wilhelm and Robert Hanna on a report for the Center for American Progress called the Power of the Pygmalion Effect, which was released last week, and we found that what an educator believed a student could achieve turned out to be a deeply strong predicator of what that student did actually achieve.

The study was featured in The Root and Huffington Post. Here is our major finding. I bolded the text:

All else equal, 10th grade students who had teachers with higher expectations were more than three times more likely to graduate from college than students who had teachers with lower expectations. In other words, the expectations of teachers showed a very strong predictive relationship with college graduation rates. It cannot be said for sure that teacher expectations boosted college graduation rates. It is also possible that teachers with lower expectations were more likely to teach traditionally disadvantaged students who are less likely to succeed in colleges.

What does this all mean for our education system? In the report, we discuss that too, arguing that we

must continue to raise expectations for students. The Common Core State Standards are one of the most powerful ways to do so, and states and districts should continue to support them. In particular, education leaders need to pay attention to the standards’ implementation to ensure that they create higher expectations for students.

Check out the rest of the report and tell me what you think.

This post also appears on

Why Society Needs To Build Cohesion–And The Awkwardness Of Writing A Book On Trust

boat small

When I told people I was working on a book about our faith in others, they sometimes seemed to think I was an aspiring self-help guru. Strangers would confess to me about the times that they lost-or gained-the faith of others. One woman explained to me over drinks how she met her first husband. As I remember the story, she met the man on an airplane, and after the flight, he drove her to her home. (They later divorced.) At a birthday party, a man told me about the time that he got scammed in New York City and lost a large sum of money. Another man revealed to me that his wife had had an affair. A “personal betrayal,” he called it.


I often didn’t know how to respond to these stories. Sure, I was writing a book on trust. But I didn’t know much about the often emotional, deeply personal nature of our faith in others, and I certainly wasn’t interested in becoming the Deepak Chopra or Tony Robbins of trust. I was more focused on what sociologists call social trust, or the degree to which we place our faith in people that we don’t know. But all this spontaneous sharing made me think more deeply about the nature of our faith in others.


I’m not the first person to get tripped up in the various notions of trust, and there’s a long-standing debate over how exactly to define the term. [[or somehow specify this issue. Good point. See tweak.]] But what’s clear is that other writers on our faith in others have also tried to distance themselves from the self-help crowd. In his excellent book Liars and Outliers, for instance, security expert Bruce Schneier makes clear that he has little interest in more “intimate” forms of trust. “I’m not really concerned about how specific people come to trust other specific people,” he writes. For Schneier, what matters is what’s known as “impersonal trust.” Or as Schneier argues, he is in a way “reducing trust to consistency or predictability.”


Schneier’s argument makes sense because when we trust someone, there’s always some potential for betrayal. There’s always some possibility of duplicity, and that means that our faith in others requires strong logic and plain reason. No one, as Schneier and others have pointed out, should mindlessly place their faith in others.


But over time, I realized that I should not be so skeptical of the more personal aspects of our faith in others. After talking with various researchers¾and reading all sorts of books and articles-I came to learn that even some of the most seemingly unemotional forms of trust can be deeply emotional. In other words, policymakers who want to improve our faith in others should take a page from the self-help crowd and do more to build a sense of social intimacy and promote what neuroeconomist Paul Zak once called the “empathic human connection.”


This is clear in the research on trust. As legal scholar Yochai Benkler has argued, a personal bond-or what he calls “humanization”-can foster a sense of cooperation. When we feel a social connection with people, we’re more likely to work with them. Consider a study by economists Gary Charness and Uri Gneezy. In one behavioral economics experiment-known as the dictator game-the economists showed that people were more generous toward a stranger if they knew his or her last name.


I’ve seen this in my own life, too. Soon after I began my book, I followed the advice of Robert Putnam who argued for greater civic involvement in his seminal book Bowling Alone, and I joined a pick-up basketball league. Later, I began volunteering in a homeless shelter. Both activities helped me develop a greater sense of community, a better understanding of other people. The experiences didn’t make me trust everyone, of course. But it did give me a richer sense of perspective.


But my favorite example of the emotional aspect of seemingly unemotional types of trust is one that I write about in my book. We often believe that trust in government is all about accountability and good governance, about honesty and performance, and when people discuss low trust in Washington, they’ll mention Congressional shutdowns or the shaky roll-out of the Obamacare website. But it’s not quite so simple. Our emotions, our sense of patriotism, can also play a crucial role, according to researchers. The events of 9/11 led to a twofold increase in the percent of people who had faith in Washington to do the right thing.


The broader implications of this idea are significant. To solve pressing social and political problems, we need to do more than just address the problem itself. We also have to address the emotional side of our divisions, to do more to bring us together as a society, and even experts on impersonal trust like Schneier raise this point. In his work, for instance, Schneier recommends greater levels of “empathy and community.” Or as Schneier notes, “even though our informal social pressures fade into the background, they’re still responsible for most of the cooperation in society.”


Efforts at improving social cohesion don’t have to cost a lot of money. They don’t have to be complicated. In my book, I give the example of former St. Petersburg, Florida, Mayor Rick Baker who fostered civic connections by constructing dog parks. There’s also the former mayor of Bogota, Colombia, Antanas Mockus, who Zak discusses in his work (and I touch upon in mine), and Mockus improved the city’s sense of civic unity, according to Zak, by establishing initiatives like a “Night for Women,” a sort of city-wide festival for “wives and mothers.” Or take Portland Mayor Bud Clark, who I also write about. Clark had a “weekly brown-bag lunch date” in the 1980s. There were no restrictions on who could attend the weekly luncheons, according to news accounts. Residents just had to ring up Clark’s office.


In the end, I still don’t have marriage advice. I still don’t have dating tips. But I have learned that trust is often deeply emotional, something highly personal. As academics David Lewis and Andrew Weigert once argued, trust is a “mix of feeling and rational thinking,” and it’s that feeling-that raw, emotional sense of social togetherness–that as a society,  we need to try and regain.


This article first appeared on Slate.

Social Trust Is Lower Than You Think

phone booth 7

A number of researchers have shown that social trust has been in a long and steady tailspin. One recent AP-Gfk poll found that “only one-third of Americans say most people can be trusted.”

But the problem might be worse than many believe, and when I recently looked at trust by state from the advertising firm DDB Worldwide Communications Group, I found that in some states the percent of people who reported complete levels of trust was basically zero.

Political scientists have documented all sorts of reasons for the recent collapse in social cohesion. Some like Eric Uslaner blame economic inequality. Others like Robert Putnam points the finger at generational change along with sprawl and changing technologies.

Whatever the exact cause⎯-and it’s almost certainly a mix⎯-the bottom line is that we’ve lost a crucial sense of our social fabric, and when I looked closely at the data, I found that in some states like Tennessee almost no one reported completely trusting strangers.

Think about that for a moment. In some states, almost no one believes that the new people that they meet are fully trustworthy.

I’m not the first person to dig into the data from DDB Worldwide Communications Group. In the 1990s, Robert Putnam mined the dataset pretty thoroughly for his seminal book Bowling Alone, and more recently, Matthew Nagler used the data to show that stronger social capital influences car crashes.

There are some throat-clearing caveats, though, and the DDB Worldwide Communications Group data dates back to 2008 and 2009. (We combined the years to make more robust state-level estimates.) Also note that respondents answer on a scale, from answering not all to trusting completely, and for the data above on Tennessee, for instance, I just reported on the percent of people who indicated that they trusted others completely. In other areas in the book and in other writings, I’ve sliced the data somewhat differently.

If you want to dig into some of the state-by-state data yourself⎯and you should⎯you can find some of the key indicators in this spreadsheet. It includes the data on trust in government and trust in people that you meet for the first time.

Looking forward, there are a few take-aways. For individuals, it’s important to keep in mind that the people that you’re dealing with at work or at school are skeptical. They’re cynical. They want you to prove that you are, in fact, trustworthy, as Roderick Kramer has argued.

More importantly for society, there’s the issue of a lack of social cohesion. What can we do to bring ourselves together? How we can we develop a greater sense of community?

There are no easy answers, but one thing is clear. We need to be more inclusive. We need to reach out more to people who are different than us, because it’s easy to trust people who share your background, according to experts like Putnam. In fact, one recent study found that we’re more likely to cooperate with people who share the same knowledge as us. What’s much harder is trusting people that are different from you, and in some areas like Mississippi, my research on the DDB Worldwide Communications Group data suggests only about 1 percent of people said that they totally trust someone from a different race.

In this way, I think journalist Robert Wright started to sketch out at least one promising solution when he argued that: “The world’s biggest single problem is the failure of people or groups to look at things from the point of view of other people or groups–i.e. to put themselves in the shoes of “the other.” I provide a long list of policy solutions to improve our faith in others in this guide. As for individuals, we might take the advice of Wright and realize that rebuilding our faith in others might start with doing more to understand the thinking of others.

Note: A huge thanks to Chris Callahan at DDB Worldwide Communications for her assistance. I’m also grateful to Stephen Goggin, who did the actual data analysis. Also portions of this blog entry have appeared before in other work by Ulrich Boser, including his forthcoming book The Leap: The Science of Trust and Why It Matters.

LEARNING TO LEARN Why Being Smart in the Information Age Isn’t Important— and Why Learning Is


I just signed up to write a new book. The tentative title is LEARNING TO LEARN Why Being Smart in the Information Age Isn’t Important— and Why Learning Is. The publisher is Rodale; the book should come out in 2015.

Here’s a brief description from the proposal:

Learning is as essential to being human as breathing. It is something we all do throughout our lives, consciously and unconsciously, at work, at school, at home. But what is learning, exactly? What does it mean to learn? For centuries, experts have argued that education was about information: You’re supposed to study facts and dates and details. You learn to become knowledgeable and to apply that knowledge means you’ve learned something. But it turns out that this approach to learning doesn’t fit the world that we live in today. Nor does it match up with what science has shown works.

Instead, research now demonstrates that what matters isn’t so much what we have learned, but how we learn. Learning isn’t a means to a goal. It often is the goal. What’s more, it turns out that once you know how to learn, you can learn almost anything, and as a society, we need much deeper forms of education, where information and knowledge work to foster the creativity and problem-solving skills that are what ultimately matter in today’s economy. Or think of it this way: When it comes to schooling, the traditional three Rs of education–reading, writing, and arithmetic–are woefully inadequate. Instead, we need to engage a new set of “Rs”–what I call the six Rs of learning: rigor, resilience, routine, interest, resourcefulness, and reflection. 

I hope to post more in the coming weeks.

Photo: Sara Cimino.

Interview with Michael Blanding, author of The Map Thief


Disgraced map dealer Forbes Smiley once told reporter Michael Blanding that he hoped that the stories about his thefts “would go away.” That might be so. But thankfully Blanding took up the case, telling a powerful story about the nature of crime and greed. I blurbed Blanding’s book called The Map Thief: The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps with those words. Recently, I interviewed Blanding via email. A lightly edited transcript below.

Why did you write this book?

I’ve been a lover of maps since a young age – something about looking at map immediately makes me excited about traveling and discovering new places. So when I first heard about Smiley’s case back in 2005 I was very intrigued by his story and this world of rare-map collectors it involves. In 2011, I was complaining to a journalist friend that I didn’t have any good story ideas, and she mentioned that Smiley had just been released from prison and I should try and interview him. As soon as I spoke to him, I knew that I had the subject for a fascinating book that would be part psychological profile of a thief, part history of mapmaking, and part investigation into this obscure subculture.

Why does it matter?
Maps have been incredibly important documents over the centuries — they have helped to discover new territories, define boundaries, establish trading empires, and win wars. And yet, most people don’t know a lot about them. Many of these historical maps exist in only a few copies safeguarded by rare-book libraries and other institutions and so when someone steals or defaces them, they are changing our understanding of history. The fact that it was a lover of and dealer in rare maps who was doing the stealing intrigued me and made me ask what makes someone betray the thing that he loves most for personal gain. I think that is a very human story to which everyone can relate.


What surprised you the most?

While I found what Smiley did despicable, I also found him to be sympathetic and relatable in many ways. One of the most surprising aspects of his story was his attempts to essentially buy a small town in Maine during the course of his thefts, and develop it into the image of a perfect New England village. He bought the post office, and a restaurant, and general store, and ended up employing half of the town, which thought he was Robin Hood come to save their community. Unfortunately half of the town didn’t share his vision, and he got in all kinds of legal battles that ended up costing him more money and, if they didn’t cause his thefts, they certainly exacerbated them. 

Does Smiley’s story provider broader lessons for how we think about crime and criminal justice?

Smiley’s thefts were a test case in the area of antiquities theft. Because he  admitted to many of his thefts, he ended up getting a lighter sentence than some of his victims thought he should get. I can see both sides–one the one hand, authorities wanted to present an incentive to future thieves to cooperate in recovering artifacts; on the other, victims argue that by not giving a heavier sentence, the law isn’t doing enough to deter future thefts. As I go into in the book, however, there were also serious questions raised about how much he cooperated with authorities and whether he actually admitted to all of his thefts or not. There are a lot of good arguments on both sides, and ultimately I leave it to the reader to decide for him- or herself.

Have there been any developments since the book was released? Have you heard from Smiley himself?

I’ve been very pleased to receive positive feedback from nearly everyone I wrote about, including map dealers, librarians, and some of Smiley’s friends. I had really tried to present all sides fairly and accurately, so it was gratifying to hear that I had succeeded. The two exceptions were one map dealer who did not like the way I portrayed him in the book (Anyone who’s read the book could probably figure out who this is), and Smiley himself– from whom I’ve heard nothing from since he stopped talking to me halfway through the reporting. I did send him a copy a few weeks prior to publication and thanked him for his participation, but I never heard back from him, and I’m not sure I ever will.

What Government Can Do To Improve Our Faith In Others


There’s a lot that policymakers can do to improve our trust in others. In fact, federal, state, and local governments might be able to do more than anyone to rebuild a feeling of social cohesion and civic unity.

My book on social trust is coming out in a few weeks, and as part of the release, I’ve put together a guide for policymakers, which gives some suggestions and ideas on how government can build a grassroots sense of community.

Here’s a snippet from the guide:

-Support housing initiatives that rebuild cities and town in ways that emphasize socially and economically diverse communities.

-Invest in community policing, drug courts, and other forms of procedural justice that provide citizens with a greater voice in the legal system.

-Expand successful community-building programs and double the number of AmeriCorps participants.

-Resolve the status of the nation’s undocumented immigrants.


But please download the full guide for policymakers–and read it, share it, and of course, tell me what you think! (Image via Wiki.)